The Sympathizer (Novel, 2015)
Have you ever felt like a work of art is profound but can’t describe why?
Such is the frustration that I felt while reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut and Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Sympathizer. To say this book isn’t written for me is an understatement. It describes a culture that I have never attempted to sympathize with.
Structured somewhat like Nguyen’s inspiration Invisible Man, the novel centers around it’s unnamed protagonist, a Communist spy who escaped from Vietnam during the Fall of Saigon and now has made a life in America. Here in the states the spy begins fresh in a refugee camp with two fellow comrades from his own country before moving to Los Angeles and attending a university.
From there he becomes acquainted with a woman named Ms. Mori, who is liberated feminist that agrees to an open relationship with our undercover hero. He also keeps a report with his aunt and mysterious man appropriately named Man who reports back too.
While reading the novel, I felt like I was reading a tale inspired by The Godfather as well as Brian de Palma’s controversial gangster flick Scarface, in part because of how the protagonist becomes entangled in a assination over party politics as well as because of his own rise here in America.
Often described as a comedy, the novel takes its own detour into absurd when our hero becomes involved with Hollywood. He’s hired by what he calls an Auteur to help with the screenplay and eventual production of a film dubbed Hamlet that is an obvious nod to Francis Ford Coppola’s harrowing film Apocalypse Now.
There on the set of the film in the Philippines our hero is accidentally blown up during the infamous bombing of Napalm scene and suffers a leg injury, which fuels his own condemnation of how Hollywood romanticizes and portrays the American involvement of the Vietnam War while ignoring the other side of the battle.
It’s here in these descriptions of the filming that we sense where Nguyen is going with the novel. Unlike the usual depiction of America in that war of ideologies, Nguyen instead sympathizes with the victors and their own losses suffered during that atrocity of violence, going into detail about how the extras of the film are played by Chinese and Filipinos rather than actual Vietnamese.
But this level of sympathy is merely window dressing for what really is going on the novel. What strikes upon an initial reading is the density of prose, something that at first seems to be a product of aesthetics but eventually takes on greater importance when the novel addresses the style in its closing chapters.
Written from a first person perspective, the novel is written as a confession to crimes that aren’t apparent at first. It’s not until the end that we even realize that our protagonist is writing from a internment camp in Vietnam, being tortured and forced to write and rewrite the novel in order to get him to confess that something even he doesn’t know.
In the final throes of desperation induced by sleep deprivation, our hero finally breaks and confesses that he’s done nothing which is what liberates him from his own demons, to what he gains from his admittance to this is perhaps the mystery that confines the novel to a necessary reread.
Which is exactly what makes this work so frustrating. The feeling is there that something important is being said, but what that importance is seems to be beyond grasp from an initial read.
What is clear tho is that Nguyen has written a work that challenges the typical American assumption that the Vietnamese were the bad guys. Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam tho raised in America from the age of 4, clearly sympathizes with the people of his own country and has created something that will undoubtedly speak to them. But the work really seems aimed at a culture caught between two worlds, that of America and Vietnam.
Our hero himself identifies as a man of two minds, that of what he dubs an Occidental and Oriental. At one point of the novel the hero even lists how he shares qualities from both a Western style of life as well as an Easter style of life, sharing how he is both forthright like an American and yet obedient like an Asian, opinionated and yet reserved. And it is this trapping between two worlds that we find why our hero is dubbed a sympathizer, because belonging to both sides of the globe, he feels caught between two cultures that at war with each other, to the point of accepting that his own sympathy for the Communist party is more the result of him being a pawn of Russia than the instigator of a revolution that he realizes has left his own home country torn by the victors.
And it’s not until his own “re education” thru torture and terror by said victors that our hero finally realizes how much being the victor of your own revolution costs your people. Upon being kicked out of his home country and fleeing back to America, he even states that the irony of living in a now Communist country is that anything can be bought, even his freedom. And perhaps in light of his own country’s revolution, freedom is still a long ways away, tho America still waits for his return.
Tho where his sympathies finally lie still remain still be seen.